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immoral creature

Bobby to baddie

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Rishi Kapoor’s Rauf Lala belongs to the pantheon of Bollywood’s greatest villains, alongside Gabbar Singh and Mogambo.

In his 42nd year in the business, Rishi Kapoor has completely reinvented himself as an actor, stealing every scene that features him in 2012's first blockbuster, Agneepath. This should not be surprising given that he's spent most of his 59 years in front of the camera. What is remarkable is the ease with which he has graduated - first to elder statesmen roles and then, in Agneepath, to pure villainy, as Rauf Lala. It's a journey combining an inborn gift and in later years, the benefit of sheer experience.

It's a journey that began in 1970 when Rishi Kapoor played the young Raj Kapoor in his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker. In the film, the 18-yearold Rishi played a callow boarding school boy smitten by the charms of his teacher Simi Garewal. He won the national award as a child artiste for his role. Bobby (1973), his debut as leading man alongside Dimple Kapadia, turned him overnight into a teen hearthrob. But even in the years following the film, when he became something of a romantic icon, he was not averse to taking risks. For example in 1975, he had no qualms about clowning around in drag in Rafoo Chakkar, Narender Bedi's adaptation of Some Like It Hot. And, even though his career as a solo hero was hugely successful, Kapoor took on multi-starrers where he managed to impress viewers. His Akbar in Manmohan Desai's immortal Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) was by no means a third fiddle to Amitabh Bachchan's Anthony or Vinod Khanna's Amar. Rather, Kapoor's quawwali-singing tailor was one of the highlights of the film.

Though retrospectively, we look at the '80s as a dark period for quality cinema, Rishi Kapoor starred in a string of memorable films. Ramesh Sippy's Saagar (1985) reunited him with Dimple Kapadia and saw him hold his own beside one of India's most talented performers, Kamal Haasan. He also shone alongside the leading ladies of the time Sridevi (Nagina and Chandni) and Jayaprada (Sindoor). But it was his turn in J P Dutta's seminal Hathyar (1989) that perhaps provided a clue to the genesis of Agneepath's Rauf Lala. Kapoor played the peacenik Samiulla Khan who is bitterly opposed to his elder brother and mafia don Khushal (Dharmendra). Though Kapoor's role in Hathyar is antithetical to his character in Agneepath, a fresh look at the film reveals the hidden power in his performance.

Barring Henna (1991) and Damini (1993), the 1990s were largely a fallow period for Kapoor. His career was in transition and he was moving towards playing more mature characters. Kunal Kohli's Hum Tum (2004) presented to us the new, older and dare one say, improved Rishi Kapoor. Here was a bluff, avuncular actor with twinkly eyes, a rakish smile and a newly gruff voice that re-captured the imagination of movie goers.

Kapoor honed this new image in films like Pyaar Mein Twist, Fanaa, Namastey London and Delhi 6, culminating in a bravura performance in Love Aaj Kal. Or so we thought. Kapoor, the actor, actually had more up his sleeve. Just when we thought he couldn't get any better, he followed it up with a knockout performance in Do Dooni Chaar where he played a harried middle-class Delhi lecturer to perfection and Patiala House where he owned the role of a stern Southall patriarch.

His best, of course, was saved for Agneepath. Director Karan Malhotra cleverly replaced the swagger of an older Bachchan with the younger, angrier, more ruthless and cold-blooded Hrithik Roshan. The jury is out on whether Sanjay Dutt's evil quotient manages to outdo Danny Denzongpa's clinical, antiseptic and immeasurably more cruel Kancha Cheena. But Malhotra's masterstroke was casting Kapoor as Rauf Lala.

It was a gamble because the audience knows Kapoor mostly as the good guy. Here, though Dutt's Kancha is a purveyor of death and drugs, Kapoor's Lala is an immoral creature. He does not think twice about selling underage girls into a life of sexual slavery but at the same time sticks to the code of gangland brotherhood. His kohl-rimmed eyes exude menace and his lips are often set in a chilling smirk, a portent of the horrors that he might visit upon you. The stream of honeyed yet disgusting lines he utters as he tries to 'auction' Hrithik's sister sound so convincing that you think, given a chance, this baddie will make good his threats. Rauf Lala is one of the greatest villains of popular Hindi cinema and as played by Rishi Kapoor, destined to take his place in the pantheon of nasty pieces of work alongside Gabbar Singh, Mogambo and Dr Dang.

Ramachandran is the author of 'Lights, Camera, Masala: Making Movies in Mumbai' and a forthcoming biography of Rajinikanth

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